Atmosphere: Better than average Szechuan and Mandarin cuisine in an undistinguished setting.
Price Range: Appetizers from 70 cents for one-egg roll to $3 for assorted appetizers for two; soups from 50 cents for eggdrop for one to $3 for san-shien for two; main courses from $4.25 for vegetable dishes, to $6.50 for lobster mandarin, with most entrees averaging $5.25.
Reservations: Requested on weekends, not needed during the week.
Special features: Booster seats; carryout; parking on lot across from front entrance and adjacent to rear entrance. Although the Heavenly Gate's name is something of an overstatement, a pair of adult mortals and a trio of little angels can eat well there.
Paradise, however, it is not. The 5-year-old restaurant in Shirlington has a mundane, impersonal look about it, with Chinese lanterns casting dim light on red-flocked wallpaper, tables for about 60 spaced a comfortable distance from each other and tablecloths and carpet with a clean but well-worn appearance.
The all-too-familiar setting did nothing to boost our expectations, but we were pleasantly surprised. No sooner were we seated than a waiter filled the water glasses, asked for drink orders and brought a steaming pot of tea. The tea itself was a rich, strong oolong rather than the usual weak green variety, and was served with cups large enough that the children could dilute and sugar their tea with minimal mess.
Another small blessing was the Heavenly Gate's uncomplicated menu. It is a straightforward list of appetizers, soups, beef, pork, poultry, seafood and vegetable dishes; all described in unembellished detail, with one family dinner offering soup, egg roll, a choice of six entrees and fried rice at $5.95 pr person.
We passed around soup and the Heavnly Gate tidbit for two, a $3 assortment of appetizers, for a start. The tidbit platter included freshly fried won tons, crisp deep-fried chicken on the bone, tiny shrimp toasts, too-dry rumaki (chicken livers wrapped in bacon) and "shrimp chips," bland crisps that might be put to better use as scoops for dip.
Egg drop soup, rich and flavorful but heavily thickened with cornstarch, took second place to san-shien soup, a delicate, slightly smoky chicken broth containing balls of ground shrimp and pork, strips of ham and chicken, black mushrooms and whole snow peas.
The entrees ranged from exceptional to fair. At top of the list was Szechuan-style eggplant, simmered with enough garlic and hot peppers to bring it to life without smothering the ginger and scallions that flavored it.
The spicy eggplant and a smooth, pungent Mongolian beef simmered with a soy and hoisin sauce, onions and bamboo shoots were balanced by a mild, delicate dish called champagne fish, which is thin sliced of filet of sole with scallions, and black mushrooms in a sweet sherry sauce.
Much less impressive: a sticky-sweet and not-so-sour pork and tasteless mooshi pork served with two rubbery pancakes. Both pork dishes however were ordered by children with a penchant for bland foods, and were eaten without complaint with large quantities perfectly cooked rice.
As in many Chinese restaurants, the portions at the Heavenly Gate are large and there is no children's menu, so it is a good idea to split one order among two or three small folk. By doing so, dinner for four at the Heavenly Gate, from soup to fortune cookies (inspirational), costs about $25.